Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Director: Raoul Walsh                                  Writers: Douglas Fairbanks & Lotta Woods
Music: Mortimer Wilson                                Cinematography: Arthur Edeson
Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Julanne Johnston, Snitz Edwards and Anna-May Wong

The Thief of Bagdad was really the apotheosis of Douglas Fairbanks’ career. He would produce a few other notable films, like The Iron Mask in 1929, and a small number of sound films, like The Adventures of Don Juan in 1934, but this was essentially the last of the kind of smiling, swashbuckling silent film that became so associated with him that its very image is now a shorthand way of evoking the period, as Jean Dujardin would do so brilliantly in The Artist in 2010. That said, however, the film itself is also one of the only reasons that United Artists was able to stay afloat. By the mid twenties Chaplin’s films were few and far between, while Pickford and Griffith were churning out box office duds. Fairbanks, on the other hand, was incredibly popular at this time and his films made tons of money. As with so many silent films, the best way to watch it is really the only way to watch it, in this case the Cohen Film Collection version with Carl Davis’s score, which utilizes music from Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, named after the main character from One Thousand and One Nights. Not only is the music fantastic, but the print is clean and clear and, best of all, has muted tinting instead of the garish, oversaturated effect on most cheaper versions.

The film opens on the desert, with a man telling a boy a story, the words written in the stars, “Happiness must be earned,” and quotes from the Koran and the Arabian Nights. The story proper begins in the streets of Bagdad, with wonderfully tall sets designed by William Cameron Menzies--who would finish his career on the remake of the film in 1940. Fairbanks is shown in a deep sleep in the middle of it all next to a drinking fountain. But he’s not really asleep. A man comes to take a drink, and when he walks away his purse is in Fairbanks’ hand. Later the thief winds up in a mosque where Charles Belcher says that only through work can people find happiness. But Fairbanks derides him and says he just takes what he wants. As soon as he leaves he witnesses the flogging of a thief. Instead of giving him pause, however, he wants to steal the jewel the thief was flogged for, just to see if he can get away with it. And he does. At the end of his day he climbs down a deep well to see his master, Snitz Edwards, and give him all he’s stolen. Meanwhile in Mongolia the prince, Sôjin Kamiyama, has the same attitude as Fairbanks, but on a grander scale, and wants to invade Bagdad and occupy the caliph’s palace by pretending to be a suitor to the princess. The parade of suitors and their treasure is too much temptation for Fairbanks, but once inside the palace he winds up in the bedroom of the princess, Julanne Johnston, and falls in love with her, profoundly changing the meaning of life for him.

The bulk of the story concerns Fairbanks’ attempts to keep Johnston from being forced to wed one of the inappropriate suitors, and hopefully marry her for himself. But this is especially difficult since Johnston’s scheming maid, Anna May Wong, is giving inside information to Kamiyama. The second half of the film is then a hero’s journey to earn the right to marry the princess, and the various magical places and monsters he must overcome are like something out of Greek mythology. The pantomime by Fairbanks seems overly broad, even by the standards of other films from that year, but then that was his style. Though he’s athletic and exuberant and it’s all fairly infectious, even that tends to wear thin after a while. Despite that criticism, however, everything else in the film is incredibly well done including the magnificently outsized set design by Menzies, the seamless special effects by Coy Watson, and the costumes by Paul Burns. It really is a spectacular film. The great Raoul Walsh doesn’t move his camera at all, but with so much to look at and take in, it isn’t missed. The sets are a feast for the eyes, and he does use a few interesting camera angles here and there. Assisting him is Arthur Edeson, who does some exceptional work with long focus shots, and would go on film dozens more classics in the next twenty years. It’s a long film, at two and a half hours, but it never seems to flag and holds interest throughout.

In The A List essay by Joe Morgenstern he begins by mentioning one of the things that silent movie makers never could quite figure out: how much to tell the viewer through title cards and how much to leave out. While many films of the twenties feel like talkies without dialogue, necessitating a large number of title cards, this is one area where The Thief of Bagdad has no issue, and Fairbanks strikes the perfect balance between necessary information conveyed via the printed word and the abundant amount of screen time that requires none. Morgenstern also rightly praises William Cameron Menzies whose work on this film, with its gargantuan sets and mythical monsters and special effects, quite honestly has never been surpassed. One reason for this, the author states, has to do with the vertical nature of the sets, in opposition to the way that later film advances widened out the picture instead. Finally, he bemoans the fact that so few people watch silent films these days, and how much they are truly missing out, especially when it comes to a film like this. There really is almost nothing to criticize about The Thief of Bagdad, and when seen in its best and most complete form it is the equal, if not superior to, anything that has been produced in the nearly hundred years since it was first released. Now that’s an impressive feat.

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